NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A Kenyan court on Tuesday ordered a Chinese man to pay $230,000 in fines or be jailed seven years for ivory smuggling in the first of what will likely be many cases as authorities implement a stringent new law to deter illegal trading in wildlife products.
The 40-year-old man, Tang Yong Jian, had pleaded guilty to being in possession of raw ivory valued at $6,000 after being arrested at the international airport in the capital, Nairobi, on Jan. 18. He had been traveling from Mozambique to the Chinese city of Guangzhou.
In another courtroom Tuesday, a Kenyan man faced up to 5 years in jail if he failed to pay nearly $12,000 in fines for illegal possession of lovebirds. Another Chinese man also was set to be charged Tuesday over alleged ivory smuggling after being arrested Monday night as he flew in from Congo en route to China.
African countries face a monumental battle to save their endangered wildlife species, and Kenya has been among the hardest hit as poachers increasingly target elephants and rhinos. Poaching deaths of elephants and rhinos are increasing across Africa, animal experts say, because of increased demand in Asia for rhino horns and elephant ivory. Police in the West African nation of Togo said Tuesday they had seized 1,689 kilograms (3,723 pounds or 1.8 tons) of elephant tusks —twice the amount seized there last August —concealed in a container destined for Vietnam.
In Kenya, where big ivory seizures are frequently reported, the case of Tian had been closely followed by conservationists who hope a tough new law will reverse years of gradual loss of wildlife populations through rampant poaching and illegal smuggling, often with the help of corrupt local officials.
The decision Tuesday would deter potential smugglers and poachers, said Paul Muya, a spokesman for the Kenya Wildlife Service.
"We welcome this sentence. It's the first of its kind since the enactment of the new wildlife (law), and we are sure this will pass a deterrent out to would-be poachers to ensure we can now therefore save the endangered species in this country," he said.
Amid big seizures of illegal ivory over years, Kenyan lawmakers last year began working on a new wildlife law that came into effect earlier this month. Most of the ivory impounded in Kenya last year originated from across Africa, including countries such as South Africa and Cameroon, according to wildlife officials.
Much of the demand for ivory is in Asia, especially China, luring poachers across Africa to slay the giants and cut out their tusks for rewards far beyond the daily wage. In Hong Kong, government warehouses are holding more than 30 metric tons of ivory seized since 2008, one of the world's biggest stockpiles of elephant tusks. Ivory is known as "white gold" because of the rich prices it commands on the black market, and a 2011 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare said buyers in China were paying up to $2,400 a kilogram.
The illegal ivory trade has more than doubled since 2007, according to CITES, the international body that monitors endangered species.
About 70 years ago, up to 5 million elephants are estimated to have roamed sub-Saharan Africa. Today fewer than a million remain. Much of the harvested ivory ends up as small trinkets.